Quotes About Gnosticism

You'll find a very short introduction to gnosticism in the sidebar below. There's also several pages describing gnosticisim.

pond in Selmer, TN

Justin Martyr, c AD 155

The men mentioned in this next quote are all gnostics. Simon (mentioned in Acts 8) is considered by early Christians to be the inventor of gnosticism after he was sternly rebuked by Peter and John. Justin is pointing out that these gnostics are not persecuted by Rome like the Christians are.

After Christ’s ascension into heaven, the devils put forward certain men who claimed they were gods. They were not only not persecuted by you [addressed to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor], but even deemed worthy of honors. There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who, in the reign of Claudius Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. ... Almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him ... A man, Menander, also a Samaritan, ... a disciple of Simon and inspired by devils, we know to have deceived many while he was in Antioch by his magical art. ... And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. He, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe ...
   All who take their opinions from these men, as we have said, are called Christians, just as there are those who do not agree with the philosophers in their doctrines, yet the name of philosophers is given to them as well. And whether [the gnostics] perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds [that are rumored about Christians]—the knocking over of the lamp, promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh—we do not know, but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions. But I have a treatise against all the heresies that have existed already composed, which, if you wish to read it, I will give you. (First Apology 26)

Irenaeus, A.D. 183 - 186

This, then, is the kind of man whom [the Valentinan gnostics] conceive of: he has his animal soul from the Demiurge, his body from the earth, his fleshy part from matter, and his spiritual man from the mother Achamoth. There being thus three kinds of substances, they declare ...
  1. All that is material (which they also describe as being "on the left hand") will necessarily perish, since it is incapable of receiving any divine influence of incorruption.
  2. In Other Words ...

    According to the Valentinian branch of gnosticism here are 3 kind of people:

    1. The material: these can't be saved.
    2. The animal: a mix of material and spiritual, they have to do good works to be saved. This is the church.
    3. The spiritual: These are saved by their very nature. They can do whatever they want, much like the modern "once saved, always saved" doctrine.
  3. As to every animal existence (which they name "on the right hand"), they hold that, inasmuch as it is a mean between the spiritual and the material, it passes to the side to which inclination draws it.
  4. Spiritual substance, again, they describe as having been sent forth for the following purpose: Once it is united with that which is animal here, it can assume shape, the two elements being simultaneously subjected to the same discipline. They declare this to be the salt and the light of the world.
... The Saviour came to the animal substance (which was possessed of freewill), so that he might secure salvation for it. ... They further hold that the consummation of all things will take place when all that is spiritual has been formed and perfected by gnosis (knowledge). By this they mean spiritual men who have attained to the perfect knowledge of God ... They represent themselves to be these persons.
   Animal men, again, are instructed in animal things. These are those men who are established by their works and by a mere faith, while they do not have perfect knowledge. We of the church, they say, are those persons. Therefore they also maintain that good works are necessary to us. Otherwise it is impossible that we should be saved. But as for themselves, they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual by nature.
   For even as gold, when submersed in filth, does not lose its beauty because of it, but retains its own native qualities, the filth having no power to injure the gold, so they affirm that they cannot suffer any amount of harm, or lose their spiritual substance, whatever the material actions in which they may be involved. Therefore it comes to pass that the "most perfect" among them addict themselves without fear to all those kinds of forbidden deeds of which the Scriptures assure us that "they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." (Against Heresies I:5:6I:6:3)
Let us now look at the inconsistent opinions of these heretics—for there are some two or three of them [Irenaeus goes on to mention what seems far more than two or three]—how they do not agree when discussing the same points, but across the board, in things and names, they set forth opinions that are mutually discordant. (Against Heresies I:11:1)

Basics of Gnosticism

We don't have a lot of original sources for all the varied schools of gnosticism. The best we can do is compare what sources we do have to the descriptions of gnosticism given by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others—mostly in the late 2nd century.

There were so many small, varied groups that some don't really qualify as gnostic, and it can be hard to define exactly what gnostic is.

Here's some basics as defined by Irenaeus and Tertullian:

  • The main issue is a rejection of the God of the Old Testament as a false god who made a mistake by creating the world. Jesus is held up as a teacher of whatever school of gnosticism was quoting him, and he is always set in opposition to the god of the Old Testament.
  • Generally, the true god, in their opinion, was unknowable. In fact, often they referred to him as Bythus, which means "deep" or "profound."
  • This unknowable god somehow mysteriously produced "eons," who were given names like Unspeakable, Silence, Unity, Truth, Silence, Man, Church, Wisdom, Spirit, Christ, etc. These "eons" lived in a place called the pleroma or "fullness."
  • These "eons" were usually produced in sets of two, four, eight, or twelve, called (respectively) dyads, tetrads, ogdoads, and duodecads. You'll see this terminology throughout this page.
  • The way the world was produced is that Wisdom, wanting to know the unknowable father of all the eons, left the pleroma. When she still couldn't find the unknowable god, she wailed, and her emotions formed a being called the Demiurge. Then she returned to the pleroma.
  • It is this Demiurge, who had no idea where he came from, who created the world. He didn't know about the pleroma, the eons, or the unknowable god, so he thought he was god. This Demiurge, according to the gnostics, was the god who created the world.
  • When the eons heard about these things they sent one of their own, usually Spirit or Christ, to the earth to bring true knowledge to men, so that they would realize all matter is evil, attain to true knowledge, and enter the pleroma upon death.
  • Usually there was a rejection of the apostles. Irenaeus says, "[They say] that they are wiser not only than the elders, but than the apostles" (A.H. III:2:2). They claimed that Jesus delivered his teachings in secret, on the side, to someone other than the apostles. To the apostles he gave only what was fit for the public, but none of the true, secret knowledge.
  • This secret knowledge usually involved what is called docetism. Docetism is the strong separation of flesh and spirit, in which everything fleshly, earthly, or material is intrinsically evil or bad.
  • Docetism caused different responses in gnostic teachers. Some believed in being very strict and denying the body because the body's evil. Some believed it didn't matter what their body did because their body was insignficant; only the spirit would be saved. Generally, the early Christians said the gnostics tended to live permissive, immoral lives, especially the teachers.
There is another, who is a renowned teacher among them, and who, struggling to come up with something more sublime and to attain to a kind of higher knowledge, has explained the primary Tetrad [see sidebar] as follows …
   Iu! Iu! Pheu, pheu! For well may we utter these tragic exclamations at such a pitch of audacity in the coining of names as he has displayed without a blush … It is most obvious that he admits the things he's said to be his own invention, and that he himself has given names to his scheme of things which have never been previously suggested … so that unless he had appeared in the world, the truth would still have been destitute of a name.
   But, in that case, nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names such as the following:
   [The following is sarcasm, but a takeoff on a typical gnostic way of explaining divinity.] There is a certain proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction.
   But along with it exists a power which I term a Gourd. And along with this Gourd there exist a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness.
   This Gourd and Utter-Emptiness, since they are one, produced—and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves—a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon.
   These powers—the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon—brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.
   For … if anyone is allowed to assign names at his pleasure, then what shall prevent us from adopting these names as being much more credible, as well as in general use and understood by all? (Against Heresies I:11:3-4)
[Some gnostics] maintain that [their own particular "eons" {see sidebar}] were anterior to Bythus and Sige, that they may appear more perfect than the perfect and more knowing than the very gnostics! (Against Heresies I:11:5)
There is another among these heretics, Marcus by name, who boasts himself as having improved upon his master. He is a perfect adept in magical impostures, and by this means he draws away a great number of men and not a few women. He has induced them to join him as to one who is possessed of the greatest knowledge and perfection and who has received the highest power from the invisible and unnameable regions above. Thus, it appears as if he really were the precursor of Antichrist. For, joining the buffooneries of Anaxilaus to the craftiness of the magi … he is regarded by his senseless and crack-brained followers as working miracles by these means. (Against Heresies I:13:1)
This Marcus mixes filters and love potions in order to insult the persons of some of these women … those of them who have returned to the Church of God—a thing which frequently occurs—have acknowledged, confessing, too, that they have been defiled by him and that they were filled with a buning passion towards him. …
   Some of his disciples, too, have addicted themselves to the same practices and deceived many silly women and defiled them. They proclaim themselves as being perfect, so that no one can be compared to them with respect to the immensity of their knowledge, not even if you were to mention Paul, Peter, or any of the other apostles. (Against Heresies I:13:5-6)
[Marcus' disciples] also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything. For they say that because of the redemption they can now neither be stopped nor even seen by the judge. And even if he should happen to lay hold on them, then they can simply repeat these words … : "O you who sit beside God and the mystical, eternal Sige [Silence], you through whom the angels—who continually behold the face of the Father and have you as their guide and introducer—derive their forms from above … Behold, the judge is at hand, and the crier orders me to make my defense. But I ask you, as being acquainted with the affairs of both, to present the cause of both of us to the judge, inasmuch as it is in reality but one cause."
   Now, as soon as the Mother hears these words, she puts the Homeric helmet of Pluto [which makes men invisible] upon them so that they may invisibly escape the judge. Then she immediately catches them up, conducts them into the bridal chamber, and hands them over to their consorts. (Against Heresies I:13:6)
Every one of them generates something new, day by day, according to his ability, for no one is deemed "perfect," who does not develop among them some mighty fictions. (Against Heresies I:18:1)
When ... they are refuted from the Scriptures, they turn around and accuse these same Scriptures as if they were not correct nor of authority ... because the truth was not delivered by means of written documents but viva voce [i.e., by voice]. ... Each one of them alleges that this wisdom is the fiction of their own inventing ... for every one of these men ... is not ashamed to preach himself.
     But ... when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved in the churches by means of the succession of elders in the churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser, not merely than the elders, but even than the apostles! For the apostles [say the gnostics] intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Savior. And not the apostles alone, but also the Lord himself, spoke at one time from the Demiurge, at another time from the intermediate place, and yet again from the pleroma, but that they themselves—indubitably, unsullied, and purely—have knowledge of the hidden mystery.
     ... If the apostled had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the "perfect" ... they would have especially delivered [these mysteries] to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they wanted these men, whom they were leaving behind as successors and to whom they were delivering up their own place of government, to be very perfect and blameless in every way. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:2:1-2; III:3:1)
Cerdon, too, Marcion's predecessor ... came into the church frequently and made public confessions. As long as he did so, he remained, sometimes teaching in secret, and at other times making public confessions. Finally, after he was denounced for corrupt teaching, he was excommunicated from the assembly of the brothers. ... But the rest, who are called gnostics, arose from Menander, Simon's [the magician from Acts 8] disciple, as I have shown. ... But those [of Marcus] broke out into their apostasy much later, during the intermediate period of the church. (Against Heresies III:4:3)

Tertullian, c. A.D. 210

[Some gnostics] undertake to bring up from Hades the souls of the prophets themselves. I suppose that they can do so under cover of a lying wonder. For, indeed, it was no less than this that was permitted in ancient times to the pythonic [ventriloquist] spirit. It was allowed to represent the soul of Samuel when Saul consulted the dead after [leaving] God. God forbid, however, that we should suppose that the soul of any saint, much less of a prophet, can be dragged out of [Hades] by a demon.
     We know that "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light"; how much easier a man of light! … [Satan] hardly hesitated on the before-mentioned occasion to affirm himself to be a prophet of God, especially to Saul, in whom he was then actually dwelling.
     You must not imagine that he who produced the phantom was one, and he who consulted it was another. It was one and the same spirit both in the sorceress and in the apostate. It easily pretended an appearance of that which it had already prepared them to believe as real. (A Treatise on the Soul 57)

Eusebius of Caesarea, A.D. 323

The same author [Hegesippus, a 2nd century Christian about whom little is known] describes the beginning of heresies which arose in his time in the following words:

Seven Sects of Judaism

These sects are mentioned by Hegesippus, a little-known Christian of the 2nd century. Others refer to "the seven sects," but the list is not always the same. Here are Hegesippus' sects:

  1. Essenes
  2. Galileans
  3. Hemerobaptists
  4. Masbotheans
  5. Samaritans
  6. Sadducees
  7. Pharisees
   "After James the Just [the Lord's brother] had suffered martyrdom … Clopas was appointed the next bishop. … They called the Church a virgin, for it was not yet corrupted by useless discussions. But Thebuthis, because he was not made bishop, began to corrupt it. He also was sprung from the seven sects among the people [i.e., the Jews, see sidebar], like Simon, from whom came the Simonians, and Cleobius, from whom came the Cleobians, and Dositheus, from whom came the Dositheans, and Gorthaeus, from whom came the Goratheni, and Masbotheus, from whom came the Masbotheans.
   "From them sprang the Menandrianists, Marcionists, Carpocratians, Valentinians, Basilidians, and Saturnilians. Each introduced privately and separately his own unique opinion. From them came false Christs, false prophets, and false apostles, who divided the unity of the Church by corrupt teachings uttered against God and against his Christ." (Ecclesiastical History IV:22)

Elaine Pagels, 1979

Quispel knew that his colleague H.C. Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890's. ... According to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel also discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament; but these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning. Other passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known Christian tradition: the "living Jesus," for example, speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans: (The Gnostic Gospels [Vintage Books, New York: 1979], pp. X)

Dr. Darrell L. Bock, 2006

A famous conference in 1966 in Messina gathered experts to try to reach an agreed upon definition [for gnosticism], but the attempt failed. In 1996 Michael Williams wrote a book published by Princeton University Press called Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category.
   … It has been difficult to pin down the features that make a work Gnostic and the features that make it simply something different from what we know today as orthodox Christianity but not necessarily Gnostic. (The Missing Gospels, p. 16)
The age and possible roots of Gnosticism, yet another highly contentious area, is the final issue about the ancient context to survey. Almost everyone in the field regards it as unresolved. (The Missing Gospels, p. 21)
The key point is that Gnosticism was not a singular connected movement but more a way of seeing the world that produced a myriad of viewpoints on the themes tied to its definition. However, in this varied form it was never a clear alternative to the earliest expression of Christianity until a variety of Gnostic schools began to emorge, which each tried distinctly to organize Gnostic thinking. (The Missing Gospels, p. 23, emphasis in original)
Yet—and this is crucial—there was never a "Gnostic church," only a conglomeration of disconnected schools that disagreed with each other as well as with the traditional Christians. These Gnostic groups operated initially more like Greek philosophical schools than they did like communities similar to a church. (The Missing Gospels, pp. 23-24)
We lack within the Gnostic materials any detailed discussion of their community practices, a fact that stands in contrast to other early Christian material where praise and community practice dominate the contents. (The Missing Gospels, p. 24)
We have no literary testimonies to a developed gnosis that can be dated indubitably to the first century CE. (The Missing Gospels, p. 25, emphasis in original)

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